How to Build a $100 Million Satellite

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This video was made possible by Brilliant.
Learn intuitively with Brilliant for 20% off by being one of the first 200 to sign up at If you look up, there are 4,708 satellites
that came from earth currently orbiting our planet. Just in the portion of the sky you
can see, hundreds of satellites are passing overhead at any given time. You often can’t
see them, but they’re there making GPS work, taking images of earth, providing communications,
even spying for governments. These satellites are some of the most expensive single objects
that can be made. If you took at tennis ball sized chunk of the Hubble Space Telescope,
it would be worth over $1,500. Modern full-scale, commercial grade satellites cost in the hundreds
of millions of dollars. They’re just incredibly complex objects that require years to construct.
Many of the satellites flying over you right now, though, started their life here at SSL
in Palo Alto, California. SSL is a commercial company owned by Maxar
Technologies specializing in satellite and spacecraft construction. They’ve built spacecraft
that are current in orbit for everyone from DirecTV to national governments. If you’ve
ever watched satellite TV, listened to satellite radio, or used satellite internet on a plane,
there’s a decent chance you’ve directly used one of the satellites they built here
in their factory. But let’s say you want to buy a satellite from SSL, what do you do?
“Well the first thing you do is you pick up the phone and call us but the next thing
you should do is check your bank account to make sure you have enough money to buy a satellite.
Satellites, depending on what kind it is and where it’s going can cost tens of millions
of dollars up to several hundred million dollars.” Once a customer makes that first phone call
to SSL, there will then be an ongoing back and forth between them and the customer. Essentially,
the customer will tell SSL what they want their satellite to do and SSL will come back
to them with a price. Eventually, if all goes well, they’ll sign a contract.
That’s exactly what happened a few years ago between SSL and Telesat—a global satellite
company headquartered in Canada that owns and operates a fleet of satellites. Their
satellites are used to broadcast signals, whether it be TV, Radio, or Internet, for
their customers—satellite TV, radio, and internet providers. In this case, Telesat
needed a satellite to provide additional capacity over the busy North Atlantic region and so
they came and signed a contract with SSL to build their new satellite—Telstar 19 VANTAGE.
Soon after contracts were signed, work began on designing the satellite. In that process
the designers usually pull designs for some more generic aspects from previous projects
and then modify them to suit the particular job. The length of that process can vary widely
based off how complex the satellite is but throughout the process, as soon as they’ve
locked a design in, they’ll begin ordering parts. SSL builds about half their components
themselves and orders the other half from other companies. The decision on whether to
order or build in-house usually comes down to performance. “There are certain components
where, depending on what the requirements are we build higher performance components
than suppliers, some of them our suppliers build better components than we do.” Over
the years SSL has looked at what it’s good at and what other suppliers are good at and
made the decision on what to order based off that. For example, one of the components that
SSL builds are the antenna reflectors. These are what actually direct signals down to earth
and each of them is custom designed for the region that the satellite will cover. “So
this is, for example, for Telstar 18 Vantage, you can see here that these are these reflectors
that would be sticking out on the side and it’s used for sending signals back to earth
and all those little dots you see on there are for photogrammetry so they’re used to
make sure that the surface is actually exactly as designed so we have these cameras that
take pictures of these and all the dots to make sure that it was build according to the
design.” The satellite these antenna reflectors eventually went on, Telstar 18 Vantage, the
sister satellite of Telstar 19 Vantage, will launch in late August 2018 and soon after
will go into service providing data services over Asia and Oceania so the antenna reflector
was carefully crafted to provide signal over populated areas and busy flight and maritime
corridors while not wasting resources on providing service to areas the company already has coverage
for or that would have little demand such as to the south of Australia.
About 9 to 15 months after ordering, the majority of the ordered components will start rolling
through the door and then the bulk of the assembly process begins. This process is too
complex to go into detail on, but essentially they’ll first build the major elements separately.
One group will assemble the propulsion system and framework of the satellite while another
will assemble the payload, what the satellite is actually built to carry whether that be
an advanced camera or a communications system, while yet another group will assemble the
super-light and efficient solar panels that will power the satellite when in orbit. The
assembly of the different major components will take a few more months and then they’ll
start to compile those different major components together over a period of a few more months.
Each component is tested independently before and while being installed on the satellite,
but once they’re all pieced together there begins an incredibly rigorous phase of testing
the satellite as a whole. When buying a satellite from a trusted manufacturer like SSL, the
customer is buying reliability so there can be no compromise on testing. They need to
be sure that the satellite will actually survive launch and work in space and the best way
to do that is to just simulate launch and space. There are three major factors that
could harm a satellite—vibration, temperature, and sound.
The vibration comes as a satellite launches in a rocket so they test that their satellites
can survive launch. “When you put these satellites on top of a rocket in the payload
faring they experience a lot of vibration loads in the x, y, and z so we’re able to
simulate those with this vibration table. It has a baseplate there and you can shake
it in this direction, in this direction, or in this direction so it does in all different
directions to simulate the environment and make sure that it’s all operating.” The
satellite on the table in testing here is Telstar 19 Vantage itself. This here is just
one of many tests where they literally just shake the satellite and see how it responds.
They only last about 60-90 seconds each because that’s how long the satellite will experience
vibration during launch until the rocket reaches the upper atmosphere.
They’ll also test to be sure that their satellites can survive the vacuum and temperatures
of space. “So, what you see up there, this big blue pumpkin looking thing like Cinderella’s
carriage, that one is called our thermal vacuum chamber, we like to call it the blue pumpkin,
and what we use it for is to simulate the thermal vacuum of space so we’ll go down
to the vacuum levels of space, you know 10-10 TOR, and we will turn on the payload on different
parts of the satellite to make sure that everything’s functioning properly when you put it in space
and in addition to that, once it’s under vacuum, we have these thermal panels in there
to simulate the hot and cold environment. So like, when you’re facing the sun and
the satellite gets really hot, we bring those temperature to bear and then we make it really
cold when it’s facing away from earth in an eclipse type situation and make sure everything’s
functioning properly.” Lastly, launch is very loud to the point that
the acoustic energy could actually damage a satellite so they make sure it doesn’t
by simulating the launch environment through bombarding the satellite with acoustic energy
with speakers. There are a myriad of other tests performed before the satellite is given
SSL’s stamp of approval, but once it’s ready, the satellite does, of course, need
to get to the launch site. The customer decides which launch provider to use whether it be
SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, or another so the satellite might only need
to go as far as Vandenberg Air Force base a four hour drive away or as far as Baikonur
Cosmodrome in Kazakstan. The launch site is also partially decided
based off what sort of orbit the satellite is going into. If a satellite is going to
orbit in a north-south direction over the poles they want to launch in that direction
so they want to launch from a site with open water to the north or south both for safety
and, for some rocket designs, so stages of rockets can fall into the ocean throughout
the launch process. SpaceX, for example, therefore uses Vandenberg Air Force Base in California
for their polar orbit launches as it has the Pacific Ocean directly south. For geosynchronous
orbits where satellites travel from west to east at the same rate as earth rotates they
want to launch in the same direction as the satellite will orbit. For that reason they
can’t launch from Vandenberg as it has land to the east so SpaceX uses the launch pads
on Cape Canaveral, Florida as they have the Atlantic Ocean to the east. In the the case
of Telstar 19 Vantage, it was going in geosynchronous orbit in order to stay consistently over it’s
service area so SSL needed to get the satellite all the way across the country to Florida.
No matter where a satellite is going, it gets packed up into one of these specialized shipping
containers. For travel to closer launch sites within the US they’ll often drive. They’ll
put the container on a truck driven by trusted oversize vehicle drivers, have a lead vehicle
checking for obstructions, a trailing vehicle watching to make sure nothing goes wrong,
and for longer drives a motorhome so drivers can swap out and rest while still moving.
If the launch site is far, such as the ones overseas in French Guyana, in Kazakstan, or
even the further ones in the US such as Cape Canaveral they’ll fly the satellite over
in an Antonov cargo plane. Satellites arrive to their launch sites at least a month before
their launch as there’s plenty of last minute preparation to do. They have to perform additional
testing to make sure nothing was damaged in transport, fuel it up, and mount it in the
rocket. Once that happens, though, there’s a period
where there’s really nothing for SSL to do. “As they go through the process of the
countdown there are a number of places where we’re asked to confirm that we’re ready
for launch, then they launch us and at that point we can no longer monitor our satellite
until we’re off the launch vehicle so for about a half hour we’re hoping that the
launch vehicle guys are doing everything ok and they usually are.” In the case of Telstar
19 Vantage, the customer entrusted SpaceX with the responsibility of getting their satellite
to orbit so on July 22nd, 2018 at 1:50 AM a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral
carrying SSL’s latest creation to space. The launch of this satellite actually made
the record books as it is the heaviest commercial communications satellite to ever be entered
into service at 15,600 pounds. On that early morning in July, the Falcon 9 gained altitude
as it flew south-east over Africa, then 32 minutes and 40 seconds after launching, 358
miles above Mozambique, Telstar 19 Vantage was released from the rocket and gently pushed
forward in the first moments of it’s 15 year long orbit of earth.
At that point, the work’s not done for SSL, though. Their job is not just to build the
satellite but also to enter it into service in space. Once the satellite is deployed,
SSL will look for its signal and establish communications. “We start commanding the
satellite, we tell the satellite what we want it to do, we start to get the satellite into
a safe position after launch, we’ll deploy solar arrays so we can start generating power,
we’ll start to activate everything on the satellite and we’ll put the satellite in
the safe condition so that the crew can start to get some rest.” Over the next ten days
there’s a process of firing the satellite’s engines to raise it from the altitude of 350
miles where it was deployed to 22,000 miles where it will stay for its service life. There’s
then another two to four weeks of testing to make sure everything survived launch and
then, finally, after years or work, it’s time to hand over the satellite to Telesat,
the customer, so they can put it online and start operating it commercially. At that point,
after years of work the satellite can finally itself be put to work.
One of the aspects of how satellites work that I found most interesting to learn about
when I filmed this video was on how orbits work. The science of how you can make an object
orbit at such a consistent speed that it will stay still over one particular area of earth
is fascinating and if you want to learn all about how that works, Brilliant teaches you
exactly that in their classical mechanics course. Of course there’s more than just
orbits, this course provides a great overview of physics and with Brilliant, you’ll actually
understand the concepts rather than just learning them. They specialize in teaching the intuitive
principles behind concepts so that you learn the why. They also have plenty of other fascinating
courses on topics like astronomy, logic, and gravitational physics—a course that teaches
how planetary orbits work. All in all, Brilliant is a great place to learn and best of all,
you can try Brilliant classes for free by signing up at and then,
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100 thoughts on “How to Build a $100 Million Satellite”

  1. I constantly see satellites on clear nights. Looks kinda like another star at first, until you see it moving across the sky. Just one continuous little light moving across the sky and changing in brightness. One satellite I saw must've caught the suns light at just the right time, because it became really bright in the sky for a few seconds before fading away again

  2. In 2018 when new satellites are launched what are the plans for the maintenance over its life period and also plans for its termination/cleanup? Does SSL maintain and operate the satellite once it's in service or does all that fall to the customer?

  3. Either space industry is now so normal they hire low skill people or the female presenter treats people as idiots. Either way im appauled. Seeing that she cant even put on the hairnet correctly id go with the former.

  4. Would be good to know about the Kazakhstan space launch center. We don't know much about that particular country in the world.

  5. Onsale now!! SSL Stock, now a division of MAXAR (Ticker: MAXR) corporation, 87% discount from just a few moths ago!

  6. SSSSSHHHH QUIET!! DONT TELL KIM JONG UN HOW TO BUILD A SATTELITE Oh wait they dont have the money and no rockets


  7. In Elon Musk by Ashlee Vanace, Elon said, they built entire rockets in under 3 million dollars.

    Talk about over pricing here.

  8. what if you need to put a satellite in geosynchronous orbit over any of the arctic regions where at certain times of the year the earth is in the way of the sun, does it just have to have a big ass battery?

  9. Can you do a video on losing a satellite? How are they insured? Who takes the blame of a launch failure, and who replaces it?

  10. It's comforting to see there are those so focused on seeing to our mother's big picture thanks to unseen yet overlooked in holding such an honorable respected work

  11. And Socialism would have you believe that janitors be paid the same amount as these Aerospace Engineers who build and launch satellites, and business who risk hundreds of millions of dollars to get them made and operated.
    Like get the fuck out of hear socialists

  12. How do they make sure that it is always providing service to a specific area, don’t the satellites orbit the earth so how do they stay within the area that they want service provided to

  13. Kinda crazy how these satalites make the world work and we never think about it. Great to see some awesome American work.

  14. You weren't kidding that the vibration was bad. I mean, at 9:48, there is so much vibration that the camera is seeing doubles.

  15. just looked into ssl and apperently they dont pay their employees very well. seems a lot of people have a bit of mixed feelings about the company.

  16. Fake video! Stop spreading this nonsense. People like you are why America is corrupting the minds of people. The earth is flat this is impossible.

  17. Thanks to these satellites, we can send each other memes and watch porn.
    I love this company

  18. I'm glad they test all this on the ground cuz be kind of fucking late to find out that your satellite doesn't survive in space after you launch it

  19. Contact ISRO (INDIAN SPACE RESEARCH ORGANISATION). ISRO has already set up a world record launching of 104 satellites in a single launch

  20. Sb tell this whore who's got job through female quota & promoted by opening legs that CLEAN ROOM HEAD GEAR IS TO COVER ALL HAIR NOT TO BE WORN AS SCARF

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